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Safe and together: women and children experiencing domestic abuse

In this interview Anna Mitchell talks about how improved understanding of the dynamics of coercive control are helping social workers support children
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We needed to really look at how domestic abuse practise was carried out in social work, and what the response was. So we wanted to see whether or not, social workers were carrying out best practise when they were doing assessments and case planning, with families affected by domestic abuse. So we did a case file audit in 2014. We looked at 26 case files where there had been a full assessment of risk and need carried out, and asked whether or not the assessments were meeting best practise in relation to domestic abuse. So what we found was that, in terms of assessment, there was a real focus on singular incidents of physical violence.
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So there was less looking at wider forms of abuse and control, and really just a focus on singular incidents of physical abuse. There was less like a pattern of abuse, the perpetrator’s pattern in previous relationships, how the perpetrator had behaved in the history of the relationship, and also before that. And also, looking at how social workers assessed impact on children. And what we found was that they weren’t really able to look at how a particular kind of abuse impacted on a specific family and an individual child. There was lots of generalised statements about the impact of abuse on children, and not enough of an analysis of how the perpetrator’s abuse impacted on a specific child.
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If people didn’t make really quite drastic responses to domestic abuse, like moving home and phoning the police, that they weren’t seen as protecting their children. So we had a really narrow idea of what it was to protect your child, and it usually rested on the mother. So we weren’t asking a lot from fathers, we weren’t asking a lot from perpetrators. We weren’t really being descriptive about what behaviour change we were looking for that would keep children safe. And we also, I think, one of the bits of the model I’ve not spoke about is about the adverse impact of the behaviour on the child.
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So not just looking at where their children could see domestic abuse or hear it, and only noticing risk if they are being held, or if they intervene, and actually starting to look at what’s the impact on a child of moving home, of losing contact with their friends and family, of having a mother that might be depressed, or doesn’t have any friends or any money, and really thinking a lot wider about how domestic abuse impacts on children, rather than just, did they see an incident of physical violence. The Safe and Together Model was developed by David Mandel in the States.
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It’s been used quite widely in different parts of the States, and it’s really started to spread across the world, into Australia, into other parts of America. And Scotland, Edinburgh, was the first place outside the U.S. to do the practise tools training. Since then, it’s been carried out in nine local authorities in Scotland. And people are really responding well to it because it allows people to actually engage in a more effective way with families. It really matches a lot of social work values, of not trying to blame mothers for not protecting their children, and it uses skills to really help describe their protective efforts and hold perpetrators to account.
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It’s different because what it’s really trying to do is be a lot more descriptive about what the perpetrator’s pattern of abuse is. So, stopping saying general things about domestic abuse and really starting to be able to describe a perpetrator’s pattern, and how that impacts on the child. It also really tries to raise our expectations of fathers to be equal to that of mothers. So, it’s a model that can be used out with heterosexual relationships, and it can be used for male victims. But it really talks a lot about what our society’s expectations of mothers versus their expectations of fathers, and how does social work responses, or just child welfare responses in general, engage or not engage with fathers.
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And how do we expect them to parent their children and value what is that they are doing, or not doing, and assess the risks that they have. So it’s about really describing the impact of domestic abuse on the child and looking at what the protective efforts are of the non-offending parent. And, really being a bit more nuanced in how we look at substance misuse and mental health, and how that relates with the perpetrator’s behaviour, but also how it relates to how the perpetrator might prevent the victim from being able to heal from substance misuse and mental health. The perpetrator has got more presence within the child’s plan and within the whole process.
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So, rather than saying things like, they need to engage with the– like, for a perpetrator programme, for example, it’s actually really asking them, specifically, what behaviours it is that we think are impacting on their children, and what they need to do to change it. So there’s something about really evidencing whether people are making the changes that we need them to make, and being a lot more descriptive about how they are impacting on their children and their children’s lives. And we know that perpetrators are more likely to make changes when we talk about their children, and their role as a father.
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But there’s also something about, irrespective of whether the perpetrator makes the change, that we are within our reports, within speaking to each other, within our engagement with families, women, children, and men, that we are holding perpetrators accountable. And that we’re focusing on their behaviour as being the primary source of the risk concern, and not what the mother is doing or not doing. What people have found about this model is it’s totally transformative. And it brings together people who work with victims of domestic abuse, perpetrators of domestic abuse, and who have been engaged with statutory and children’s services. And they all feel that this model is something that meets their needs.
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Sometimes it can feel like people in those different services, and organisations, and systems are in opposition to each other. And this is one of the first models that’s really brought together all those different services areas and meets the needs of everybody, and most importantly, victims and children. The thing that the model really encourages us to look at is the different expectations we have of mothers and fathers. And it is saying that domestic abuse is a parenting choice, and it’s a parenting choice of the perpetrator. So it’s really saying that we need to think a lot more about how we hold perpetrators accountable for their parenting choices, and that all of our systems, processes, conversations, and reports, do that.
In this interview, Anna Mitchell, the Domestic Abuse Lead Officer at Edinburgh Council talks about how improved understanding of the dynamics of coercive control are helping social workers support children in families where there is domestic abuse.
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